As I write this the clouds are rolling into the Chamonix valley bringing up to two metres of snow. At the same time it feels like the metaphorical clouds have lifted for everyone here. There’s been a palpable sense of frustration at the poor start to the season, but the coming clouds have a powdery lining.
Frustration is something we all have to deal with – the outdoors is a wild and unpredictable place that cares not for your well laid plans and ambitions. I’ve moved from Cumbria to Chamonix to photograph mountain sports; the week before Christmas not a single lift was running in the valley, but the ski tow at Raise (on Hellvelyn) was ironically busy with skiers. The grass is always greener and the snow is always deeper….
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good moan. But several weeks of jealous anger about Lake District powder and ice routes in Scotland isn’t entirely productive. Thermometers showing 8 degrees and green hills with pathetic strips of a greyish, patchy white where the snow cannons have manifestly failed, do nothing for the soul.
I was looking in the wrong places. The mountains were still there. The altitude was still there, and the beauty was still there. I may call myself a skier, sometimes a climber, a hiker or a biker, but in essence I’m a mountain lover. If the skiing is closed out, if the icefalls are falling down, am I going to let that stop me getting out there?
Well I almost did, and it seemed many other Chamonix residents were down in the same dumps. The problem was looking at Chamonix as a ski resort, or a climbing mecca, rather than as the playground it is. People were still paragliding, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing…. And some people, like Sophie and Charley Radcliffe, are just doing everything.
I’d been talking to Sophie and Charley about a trail running photoshoot, but I was thinking of it as a distraction – my mind was still firmly locked on to climbing ice and skiing powder. My plans were fixed and my mind closed to possibility; hence my misery at the conditions. But the conditions were perfect for winter trail running and the Radcliffes’ enthusiasm encompasses pretty much any activity. Infectiously so.
I don’t know how the top climbers can be so focussed on their goals; singlemindedness in the mountains just doesn’t seem to work for me. I guess adaptability is always required, by all of us, whether approaching a single route or a whole winter season. And as the warm weeks of December passed and my preconceptions of winter continued to unravel, I became more and more aware of new ways to appreciate the mountains.
Charley introduced me to a fatbiker. Note the difference between fatbiker and fat biker. Geoff Harper is planning to ride a fatbike around the Mont Blanc massif in winter, and in my new-found pursuit of marginal winter sports, we quickly hatched a plan to partner up on a world-first project.
Looking for new opportunities is something to be practised. I was waiting to meet Geoff a couple of weeks ago, not knowing he’d slipped on some ice and had to bail. But as my inquisitive muscles had been receiving a work out I was quite naturally looking at my surroundings differently. Instead of the imposing landscapes I’d intended to photograph with Geoff, I started looking closely, at the ice crystals beneath my feet, the building blocks of those grandiose winter scenes we love so well. It gave me a new satisfaction to shoot winter so close.
So the snow will fall, and I’ll be the first in the lift queue. The temperatures will drop and my axes will be sharp and ready. But I won’t regret this poor start to the winter; without it I would have missed out on so much.
Daniel wrote this piece a month ago and since then the snow has barely stopped.
@DanWildeyPhoto / http://www.danielwildeyphotography.com/